Female Mountaineers through the 1800s were as daring as their male counterparts. Safety gear and high-tech clothing did not exist for anyone, but the female mountaineers had an additional challenge. Most achieved spectacular ascents while wearing restrictive corsets, perilous petticoats and long heavy skirts.
They were a resilient bunch. Some adapted their long skirts to suit their climbing needs. Others wore skirts until out of view then ditched them for more practical pants or pantaloons. A few rejected convention and wore pants despite social ostracism. Whatever road the female mountaineers chose, they disproved Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s belief that tight waists and long trailing skirts deprived women of all freedom.
Following are just a few of our favorite female mountaineers who climbed challenging heights with or without petticoats.
Wild Women Of Yosemite Kicked Social Norms Off The Cliff
Undoubtedly, Native American women climbed the peaks in Yosemite long before Western settlers arrived. But these were among the first non-native women to climb the famous peaks.
Kitty Tatch was a maid and waitress at the Sentinel Hotel in the late 1890s to early 1900s. Wearing long skirts, she and her friend Katherine Hazelston did high kicks on Overhanging Rock, 3,000 feet above the Valley, on Glacier Point. Landscape photographer George Fiske took pictures of the grand moment. According to the nps.org that were made into postcards that the women signed and sold for years.
In 1896, three Sweet sisters–Stella, Bertha and Mabel–along with their friend Maybel Davis ascended Mt. Lyell, the highest mountain in the park. According to the National Park Services, They were also the third group of non-Native women to climb this peak. They were also the first non-Native women to descend into Tuolumne Canyon. According to the National Park Service site:
“Dressed in leggings, bloomers and wide-brimmed hats, these four adventurous women took a shortcut down by sliding down the glacier to descend at “a mile a minute.”
Lucy Smith And Pauline Ranken Scaled Sheer Cliffs In Long Skirts
Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken expertly ascended Salisbury Crags in the early 1900s. They had no harnesses, crampons or other modern safety equipment available. Their only protective gear was a length of rope tied around each of their waists. Astonishingly, they made their climbs while wearing long skirts, hats, blouses and smart shoes.
Lucy Smith, Jane Clark and her daughter Mabel founded The Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908. Pauline Ranken was also an early member of the club.
Many Tweaked Their Petticoats
In his well-researched book, The Victorian Mountaineers, author Ronald Clark (1916-1987) explored the history of Victorian pioneers that explored high places. Although written in 1953, Clark dedicated a chapter to female mountaineers from the early 1800s to 1900s.
“Two things combined to hinder the growth of mountain-climbing among women. One was the belief that it was not a womanly occupation, a belief, which was expressed well past the turn of the century. The second was the problem of clothes.”
According to Clark, each female mountaineer handled the challenges of Victorian dress codes in her own way.
Henriette d’Angeville longed to climb Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, and finally did so in 1838. She was the second woman, after a reluctant Maria Paradis did so in 1808. D’Angeville scaled twenty-one more peaks including a second run at Mont over the next twenty-five years.
Clark writes that she was called the “thwarted maiden lady in her forties.” Despite that, she reached her goal, drank a bumper of champagne and sent a carrier pigeon with her big news. Her guides were so impressed with her, they lifted her on their shoulders so she could go one higher than Mont Blanc.
“Her dress in which she was later painted, consisted of a long-skirted garment which she wore over brightly checkered peg-top trousers, an outfit chosen, one must assume, for its publicity value rather than its utility.” (p. 175)
D’Angeville was treading the line between proper female attire and common sense. But there was no lack of critics, no matter what compromises a woman made.
Mark Twain later wrote about her in his book, A Tramp Abroad (1880):
“Miss d’Angeville put on a pair of men’s pantaloons to climb it, which was wise; but she cramped their utility by adding her petticoat, which was idiotic.” (chpt. 44)
Aubrey Le Blond,(also known as Elizabeth (Lizzie) Leblond, was a remarkable climber who according to Clark, “faced opposition even as late as 1879.”
In the 1880s, female mountaineers were still a slim minority. They had to contend with rampant misogyny, even while proving themselves at least as capable as their male counterparts on the mountains. Le Blond constantly pushed the limits of what was considered appropriate behavior for women.
In 1932, Le Blond wrote:
“The chief reason why women so seldom climbed fifty years ago was that unless they had the companionship of a father, brother, or sister, it was looked at as most shocking for a ‘female’ to sleep at a hut or a bivouac.”
“I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountains for knocking from me the shackles of conventionality, but I had to struggle hard for my freedom. My mother faced the music on my behalf when my grand-aunt, Lady Bentinck, sent out a frantic S.O.S. “Stop her climbing mountains! She is scandalizing all London…”
She wore skirts when she climbed so she would not be offensive. Once out of view of onlookers, she would change into safer, more comfortable climbing costumes. Most often she wore a combination of pantaloons with an overskirt.
According to Clark, the “slipping on and off” school became more popular through the years. A skirt was considered a necessity for appearances when arriving at or leaving an Alpine inn. But breeches or the equivalent were essential for most climbs.
“The discardable skirt theory, however, could bring its own penalties…it was Mrs. Aubrey le Blond, when traversing the Zinal Rothhorn, who remembered on approaching Zinal that she had left her skirt on the far side of the mountain, and was forced to retrace most of her day’s route.”
Le Blond also bucked propriety by sometimes climbing without a guide, an undertaking known as “manless climbing.” She constantly proved that women were capable of climbing on equal footing with men. While not the first woman to climb the highest peaks of Switzerland, she made many climbs there. She turned her attention to the Norwegian Arctic, where she made thirty-three climbs. Twenty-seven of them were first ascents.
She was appointed president of the Ladies Alpine Club when it was founded in 1907 with the goal of promoting the sport for women.
Eliza Cole, made three climbing excursions in the Alps with her husband beginning in 1850. She later published A Lady’s Tour Round Monte Rosa under a pseudonym.
According to Clark, some of the first advice regarding a lady’s attire on mountain climbs came from Cole. He quotes her:
“Every lady engaged on an Alpine journey should have a dress of some light woolen material, such as Carmelite or alpaca which, in the case of bad weather, does not look utterly forlorn when it has once been wetted and dried.”
Small rings should be sewn inside the seam of the dress, and a cord passed through them, the ends of which should be knotted together in such a way that the whole dress may be drawn up at a moment’s notice, to the required height. A riding skirt, without a body, which can be slipped off and on in a moment is also invaluable. 176
American mountain climber, Marguerite “Meta” Claudia Brevoort (1825 –1876) made several important ascents in the Alps in the 1860s and 1870s,
According to Clark, (Miss) Brevoort was perpetually experimenting with her climbing costumes. He quotes her:
‘ My dress plan, too, has failed, and descending snow slopes the snow enters the rings and stuffs up the hem and makes me heavy and wet. I have had to baste up both dress and skirt.’
On at least one occasion Brevoort was driven to the use of trousers.
British mountaineer Lucy Walker (1836–1916) was the first woman to climb the notorious Matterhorn. She refused to dress like a man. Her choice of climbing costume was a white print dress even if it did slightly limit her climbing.
Clark said that Walker was typical of the female mountaineers of the 19th century.
“She ‘aspired’ to the mountains; … Walker knew that climbing was better than the other occupations in which ladies could indulge. It brought her into contact with nature, it gave her the illusion of danger which had almost been removed from the world in which she moved, it gave her contracts with a world of people different from those she normally knew. It brought her, with its combination of excitement, beauty, and exaltation, to the edge of a new world.”(p. 177)
A Few Wore Pants Despite Social Ostracism
Annie Peck (1850- 1935) scandalized conservatives by wearing pants and the occasional mustache painted on her face cover. She claimed many “firsts” in academia. At 44, she started scaling actual peaks, setting numerous records in mountaineering into her eighties.
In 1895 Annie Peck became the third woman to climb the Matterhorn. She was the first to claim that victory without wearing a skirt. In 1901 she wrote an article for Outing magazine in which she described her climbing costume. She wrote that skirts on mountains were inappropriate.
Women Found Interesting Uses For Long Skirts
Many female mountaineers found inventive uses for their long skirts.
When famed archaeologist Gertrude Bell was stranded on a mountain, she used her skirt as a windbreak to start a fire.
Mary Kingsley wrote about the blessings of a good thick skirt after she fell on an animal trap.
Rena Phillips engineered a large pocket on the back of her jacket to stow her skirt as soon as she was out of civilization.
Another women wrote that she didn’t wear her skirt on climbs, she always carried one for use as a rain cape.
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